17 February 2010

An introduction to the history of science

My blooming interest in the history of biological sciences in general and of malacology specifically has led me to a 1944* book by F.J. Cole, History of Comparative Anatomy from Aristotle to the Eighteenth Century. I have been able to get a cheap used copy of it from Amazon. The 1st chapter has been highly readable and informative. Hopefully, the rest of the book will follow suit.

In the 1st paragraph of the 1st chapter, Cole laments the common lack of interest in the history sciences by the scientists themselves and then introduces a subtle warning (italics mine):

The scientist may admire, but cannot accept, the paradox that the beliefs and knowledge of antiquity have been superseded only by the more rational ignorance of to-day. It is thus the necessity of the man of science, if it is also his misfortune, to focus his efforts on the prospect that lies in front.
Cole goes on to explain why it is nevertheless good study the outdated, incomplete and often grossly mistaken science of our predecessors:
Wherefore let us bear in mind that this ancient knowledge still has its uses, if only as a warning of the dangers of research indifferently planned and weakly followed up. It behoves us therefore to examine the works of the early anatomists, to learn from them what we can, and, above all, to take heed lest we sow as they had sown and reap a similar harvest.
Well, I am for one following his advice.

*My copy is a 1975 republication of the 1949 edition.

1 comment:

pascal said...

There are definite lessons of humility that can be learned from studying long-falsified hypotheses. Particularly those of "certainty" and interpreting data.

It also shows the strength of science. It wasn't until sufficient solid evidence was aggregated that the dominant theory (paradigm - as used by Kuhn) was rejected as insufficient.

An annoying problem arises when science denialists point to an outdated idea and use it as either 1) a straw-man "proof" that these scientists are wrong - but the nutter isn't or 2) reason to doubt current assertions - the old "you scientists were wrong 200 years ago, so why would you be right now?"